Not long ago, if you wanted to find a place to eat, you needed to search for a term like “Boston restaurants”. But, today, you can instantly find a good restaurant that’s nearby if you just search for the term, “Where should I go for dinner?”
That’s because Google is sophisticated enough to recognize your intent or the implications of your query. However, prior to 2015, you needed to type the most straightforward queries into the search engine to find the answers you were looking for.
So how did Google evolve to understand their searchers’ intent and implications so quickly? Well on October 26, 2015, they confirmed that they updated their algorithm with a machine-learning artificial intelligence system called RankBrain.
What Is Google’s RankBrain Algorithm and How Does It Work?
RankBrain is a core part of Google’s search algorithm. By leveraging machine learning, it helps Google understand how specific web pages relate to certain concepts and, in turn, serve web pages that are relevant to a searcher’s query but don’t include the query’s exact words or phrases.
In other words, RankBrain helps Google understand a searcher’s intent and serve the most relevant content to them. To accurately determine a searcher’s intent, Google feeds RankBrain a massive amount of data. Then, RankBrain analyzes it and teaches itself how to serve the most relevant results based off certain search signals, like search history, device, and location.
For example, if you type the query “Where should I go for dinner?” into Google, the search engine will first pinpoint your location and detect the device you’re using. Then, it’ll use these factors to interpret your query’s intent, which Google will translate to “Which restaurants are currently open for dinner within walking distance of my current location?”, helping it serve the most relevant results to you.
Another example of RankBrain’s capabilities is how it analyzes your past search history to serve you relevant content. For instance, since I work at HubSpot and I’m always on our website, every time I search for marketing related topics, Google usually ranks content from HubSpot’s marketing blog near the top of my search results.
How SEOs Can Adapt to RankBrain
Even though RankBrain helps Google adapt to changing search behavior, most marketers still haven’t adapted their SEO strategy to this transformation.
“One of the main reasons we keep drilling our audience with the idea of topics over keywords is that search has evolved but our customer’s content marketing strategies are lagging behind,” says Victor Pan, HubSpot’s Head of Technical SEO. “Practices like purposely creating pages with misspellings and poor grammar just because there is search volume need to go.”
Today, people rely heavily on Google to provide accurate and relevant answers for most of their questions, so the search engine needs to understand the intent and context behind every single search.
To do this, Google has evolved to recognize topical connections across users’ queries, look back at similar queries that users have searched for in the past, and surface the content that best answers them. As a result, Google will deliver content that they deem the most authoritative on the topic.
To help Google recognize your brand as a trusted authority, consider implementing the pillar-cluster model on your blog. Using this strategy, you’ll create a single pillar page that provides a high-level overview of a topic and hyperlinks to cluster pages that delve into the topic’s subtopics. This signals to Google that your pillar page is an authority on the topic.
Hyperlinking all of the cluster pages to the pillar page also spreads domain authority across the cluster, so your cluster pages get an organic boost if your pillar page ranks higher, and your cluster pages can even help your pillar page rank higher if they start ranking for the specific keyword they’re targeting.
On the editorial side of things, RankBrain has pressured content marketers to scrap a tactic that they should’ve abandoned years ago — prioritizing volume over quality. Nowadays, spending more time and effort crafting insightful and compelling content at a lower volume is one of the best ways to bolster your standing with Google.
“If you have a huge inventory of 2000-era SEO tactics, I’d highly recommend consolidating the pages that are driving zero value to your business with 301 redirects,” says Pan. “It’s not that less is more, but better is more. It’s very common for a strong piece of content to rank for over hundreds of long-tail keywords of the same intent.”
RankBrain has advanced Google’s search engine to the point where people can interact with it like they’re chatting with their friends — and it’s time for content marketers to catch up.
If you apply the lessons learned above to your SEO strategy, however, you could adapt faster to RankBrain than Google’s search algorithm evolved after they implemented the AI system.